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Tips for Divorce During an Illness or Health Crisis

The vow “in sickness and in health” means different things to different people and showing up for your partner in sickness is a true test of any relationship. After all, most people do not anticipate it happening, and not all partners, regardless of taking a vow, are capable of handling their partner’s needs throughout the rollercoaster of illness. 

A health crisis complicates the decision to divorce, whether that decision was already in the works or the illness itself contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. Here are some common questions you might ask yourself:

  • What happens when a spouse finds the other’s illness too much to handle? 
  • What if the one who is ill isn’t receiving the support and partner in health that they need? Is continuing to be with them better than being alone? 
  • Is divorce possible when you are dependent on your partner for health insurance, medical care and personal needs? 
  • Has your caregiver or partner checked out of the relationship without ever verbalizing it? 
  • How, in marriage or divorce, do you prioritize yourself, your health, and your treatment while making a decision as impactful as ending a marriage and choosing to go through your sickness and your recovery journey alone?

Before we get into answers to the above questions, let’s look at how illness can impact or lead to divorce. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis almost ten years ago. My boyfriend turned husband, turned ex-husband was there for it all. However, his vow did not remain constant. He silently withdrew from our life and the support he provided, never stating his inability to cope with my disease progression. In the midst of bone marrow transplant, a relatively new method of treating MS, his inaction and lack of support made it abundantly clear that I was better alone. His presence and lack of support created a toxic environment that challenged my healing process and negatively impacted my health. That’s when I knew our marriage was over. 

Read my full story, “In sickness and in health… or not.”

How are health and divorce related?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in ten adults in the United States have a chronic disease and four in ten have more than two. Furthermore, chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S. With these startling numbers of illnesses come higher rates of divorce – specifically when the woman falls ill.

A study out of the University of Michigan looked at the effects of chronic illness on divorce and found that if women become sick, they are more likely to get divorced. Experts studied specific diseases such as cancer and found the risk of divorce rises to as high as 75%.

Should you get divorced if one (or both) of you is ill?

If you have a chronic illness or are in the midst of a major health crisis, you are no stranger to managing conflicting expectations on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Perhaps you have an invisible illness and are constantly advocating for yourself and your health needs with the outside world as well as your own friends and family. Or maybe you have learned to persevere through increased disability. You’re used to doing more with less energy. If you’re caring for an ill spouse, you’re likely familiar with the complex demands on your time, energy, and resources as well.

A new diagnosis or worsening of chronic illness may not seem at first glance to be the best time to make a drastic change in your home life and support system but if not now, when? It’s especially critical if you’re a parent and need to help your kids understand as well. 

Can divorce affect your health?

Divorce and major illness are two of the greatest stressors in terms of life events. This means that divorce and the stress caused by marital issues can exacerbate your health issues. The chronically ill or those who choose to identify as a person with a disability make choices to spend their energy specifically with great thought because they do not possess a never-ending supply. 

If you are ill and facing marital stress, it’s more important than ever to be able to identify your issues and personal needs, seek help from outside sources, and do what is best for your total health – mind, body, and spirit. This forces you to make a cost/benefit analysis on the stress of staying in an unhappy or toxic environment or waiting it out in the name of having continued support. 

Chronic stress is the enemy of illness. It exacerbates health issues and can negatively impact your overall immune system function. It’s crucial to identify the environmental stressors and take action. 

What to do if you are sick and want a divorce

  • Get your affairs in order before you start treatment. It is important for all people, not just the chronically ill, to have their medical and financial affairs in order. Fill out your medical power of attorney and share a copy with your hospital or treatment facility. Be sure you have a copy and know how to make changes. Having an up-to-date will and medical power of attorney will give you peace of mind.
  • Bring different members of your support system to medical appointments throughout treatment. Letting people into medical appointments is extremely scary. If you’re ill, chances are you’re sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s depressing at best and humiliating at worst. But it’s crucial that you let other people – friends and family – not just your spouse accompany you to hear firsthand what is going on. This front-row seat can help widen your support system if your marriage is strained.
  • Get familiar with your health insurance coverage. When you’re ill, battling health insurance can be a Herculean effort taking valuable time and precious energy. Have your insurance cards handy and know your coverage. Know if anything will change during treatment if there’s a change in your health insurance coverage. Understand your continuity of care and ask the hospital’s finance department if they have financial support services. Many healthcare facilities have disease-specific financial experts who are there to help you navigate insurance barriers and costs. Read more about coverage in our guide to health insurance after divorce.
  • Be honest with your medical team. This seems like a no-brainer but it’s crucial. Your care team should be looking at your support system as a marker for moving forward with various treatments. They have seen your diagnosis and treatment plan before and can share what is needed throughout the process and can advise you on when a person is needed to support you in recovery. If a member of your support team is absent or drops off, tell them. 
  • Get vulnerable and be okay with help. The simple truth is nobody does life on their own. We all have help from various sources throughout our lives. Get comfortable with your limits, which will change from day to day, and even more comfortable with sharing them with your caregivers. Help presents itself in many forms.

Related: Get tips for having difficult conversations when you hate conflict.

Get counseling or therapy

Now is the time to build up your village. You’re battling on many fronts and need assistance in various forms from basic needs to emotional support. For the days when you can’t leave your bed, are battling the aftereffects of treatment, or are laden with fatigue, call on outside experts. 

Battling your body and your marriage is too much to handle on most days. You are stuck in your physical body and on those days, your body automatically wins. But this internal battle doesn’t mean your relationship problems are put on hold or will magically disappear. In fact, your marital issues may become more acute because the person who is supposed to help, isn’t. 

Find a good counselor who has experience working with your type of illness to have an outlet to discuss the complexities of chronic illness. All therapists are not created equal and many specialize in new diagnoses and specific illnesses, so do your research or ask your medical team for referrals. 

Note: A therapist specializing in chronic illness is not the same as a relationship or marriage counselor. You won't get the same things out of either so try and identify what you need and know there is a diverse array of experts to help.

Make use of hospital-offered support

Doctors and care teams understand the strain of an illness on the individual who is sick as well as the caregivers supporting them. Medical professionals are familiar with the ups and downs of treatment protocols and are able to offer guidance to a patient’s entire support system so everyone understands what is expected in terms of daily support. 

Many hospitals offer counseling sessions with certified social workers as part of pre-treatment protocols and hold specific group therapy sessions designed to offer coping mechanisms and support for their patients’ caregivers. 

When medical needs, intense medication, long hospital stays or debilitating illness is involved, look to see what services are available by inquiring with your care team directly.  

Be honest about your illness

Much like the candor needed for your doctors, ensure your divorce helpers (our client services team or your mediator, attorney, etc.) are aware of your illness. Be clear about your diagnosis, treatment, timelines, and when and how you were (or were not) supported by your spouse. You may be entitled to different financial assistance in a divorce settlement based on future or projected disability, ability to work, and the prognosis and progression of your disease.

Remember: Illness doesn’t have to take your independence

In my opinion and personal experience, being alone is better than being lonely with an absent partner. Instead of wasting precious energy wondering if my partner would help me, I found other people to help or did it myself. I removed the pervasive disappointment from someone not showing up and replaced it with hope for a better future. Having your spouse show up to quarterback your team when you are ill is not too much to ask. Every individual deserves to be respected and cared for in their time of need. 

Unfortunately, some spouses or partners are reluctant to verbalize that they can’t handle your illness and are not up to the challenge but even without words, they show you every day in their lack of action and support. Actions truly speak louder than words, so watch closely and take action to ensure you are cared for in your time of need.

Need help understanding your options, or how to keep conversations with your spouse productive and calm? Check out the related resources below, or schedule a free 15-minute call with a Hello Divorce team member.

More on marriage and divorce during a health crisis:

Carolyn Deming is a writer, public speaker, and communications professional committed to disability rights and advocacy. Read more about her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, HSCT treatment, and life navigating chronic illness at www.mychroniclibrary.com.